“The worst 6-1 team in the NFL.” Actually, the New York Giants are the only 6-1 team in the NFL. OK, that’s because the 5-1 Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings had their byes this week. But until next weekend at least, the Giants trail only the 6-0 Philadelphia Eagles, who also had their bye this week, in the overall NFL standings.
From the outside, this seems impossible. The Giants have not won any game by more than 8 points. They have not scored more than 27 points in any game and are 18th in the NFL in points per game. They are 19th in the NFL in team offensive yards per game (334.3), more than 100 yards behind league leaders Buffalo and Kansas City. They are 30th in passing yards per game (160.9) in an NFL that is driven by the passing game.
It’s not the defense, either. The Giants are 19th in yards per game surrendered by the defense (355.4), 74 yards behind league-leading Buffalo. They have one interception, tied for last in the NFL. Their 211 passing yards yielded per game is 14th in the NFL, and the 144.4 rushing yards per game they have given up is 28th in the NFL. True, they lead the NFL with 8 fumble recoveries, but their 9 total turnovers is only tied for 13th in the league.
In fact, their season thus far is unprecedented:
The #Giants are the first team in NFL history to start 6-1 or better and have each of their first 7 games decided by one possession.#TogetherBlue @Giants— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) October 23, 2022
Pro Football Focus approaches things differently, using film to subjectively evaluate the performance of every player on every play and then assigning a grade on a 0-100 scale, with grades in the 60s indicating average play. Many fans tend to be skeptical of PFF grades, which don’t always seem to jibe with what they are seeing with their own eyes. But in this case, PFF’s view of the Giants seems consistent with the team’s mediocre-to-poor ranking using traditional measures:
Overall, the Giants rank 31st of 32 teams in overall performance. They are 21st in offense, 30th in defense, and 25th in special teams. Individual players are having great seasons to be sure: Andrew Thomas leads all offensive tackles with an 89.9 grade, Dexter Lawrence is fourth among interior defensive lineman at 90.2, and Saquon Barkley is 10th among running backs at 79.8. But many Giants have mediocre or even poor PFF grades.
This can’t continue. The law of averages is bound to catch up with the Giants. The statistics say that the Giants are a bad to mediocre team, and their failure to excel in any area is sure to catch up with them sooner or later. Or will it?
The Giants are a below average team ... until they’re not
If traditional metrics do not suggest that the Giants are anywhere close to being a good team, then either their 6-1 record is pure luck, or there is more there than meets the eye. If we look at advanced metrics, a somewhat different picture of the Giants begins to emerge - eventually.
The Giants’ 2022 games have unfolded in an amazingly consistent pattern, as indicated by win probability charts:
It’s almost comical. In five of their seven games the Giants have been on track to lose during most or all of the game until the fourth quarter, and they have only actually lost in one of them. It’s tempting to think of them in terms of the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the Giants being the tortoise that slogs along a bit at a time but eventually gets there, before the more mercurial hare who jumps out to the lead but loses when it takes a nap. But that would be wrong.
A better analogy might be the Muhammad Ali - George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match of 1974. Like the 2022 Giants, who have been underdogs almost every week, Ali was considered to have little chance against the younger, bigger, stronger Foreman. Ali, however, employed his now-famous “rope-a-dope” tactic, managing to block most of Foreman’s heavy punches in the early rounds until Foreman tired himself out and then springing his attack to knock Foreman out.
Can we see the Giants doing that in objective statistics? The metric of choice these days in football circles is expected points added (EPA) per play. EPA rewards explosive plays that gain big chunks of yardage and make it more likely that a team is going to score on a given drive. The higher the EPA/play, the more efficient an offense is considered to be. Likewise, a defense can create a negative EPA/play via turnovers, tackles for losses, incompletions, and even short gains if the result is not a first down. An important point is that EPA is a totally objective measure: It is based on the outcomes of individual plays (as documented in the play-by-play record of the game) relative to historical outcomes for a given down, distance, and game situation. It does not depend at all on an analyst’s subjective view of any play or player.
Here are the NFL team “tiers” defined by offensive and defensive EPA/play through seven weeks, filtering out “garbage time” plays that have little effect on a team’s probability of winning:
The Giants have been slightly above average (positive EPA/play) on offense but nothing remarkable. They have been decidedly below average on defense (because on defense a negative EPA/ play is desired, i.e., the defense is making it harder for opposing offenses to score). Compare to the undefeated Eagles, who are almost off the charts in the upper right corner, clearly the best team in the NFL to date. So maybe the Giants’ record is indeed just luck?
But here is the same chart just for fourth quarter plays:
Now the Giants are in that upper right hand corner, with a roughly +0.25 offensive EPA/play and -0.2 defensive EPA/play that is second in the NFL only to the Dallas Cowboys. In simpler terms, the Giants combined offensive-defensive efficiency is among the highest in the NFL late in games. (Not coincidentally, the only game in which the Giants lost the fourth quarter win probability battle was their loss to Dallas.) They are making explosive plays on offense and defense when the game is on the line, even though they are aren’t doing much of it earlier. They are rope-a-doping their opponents for three quarters, staying close, avoiding the haymaker, and then delivering a late knockout punch.
Pass or run?
Here are the team tiers for offense only segregated by passing vs. rushing plays:
Amazingly, by this measure the Giants have a top 10 offense considering intended passing plays (i.e., dropbacks) and designed rushing plays combined. For just the second halves of games, the chart looks like this:
So in the second half the Giants’ offense on both dropbacks and designed rushes has been about 0.1 EPA/play better than for the game as a whole. We are seeing a balanced offense, not a run-first offense, this year, it is being efficient, and it is getting stronger as the game goes on.
The defense rests too often
The team tiers for passing vs. rushing defense for the entire game look like this:
The bottom left quadrant is not where you want to be. The Giants have been among the worst teams in the NFL defending against explosive rushing plays and have been below average defending against explosive passing plays as well. Things look a little better when we isolate just the performance of the defense during the second halves of games:
The Giants have actually been worse stopping the run in the second half, but they are at least in the top half of NFL teams in passing situations later in games. They are far from a shutdown defense at this point, but have managed to come up with individual game-saving plays at the end against Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, and Trevor Lawrence the past three weeks. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has acknowledged that he holds back some of his pressure packages until the fourth quarter when needed, and this may account for the better results against the pass late in close games.
The main reason the Giants are winning
In the NFL teams rise or fall with the play of their quarterback. It has been assumed that General Manager Joe Schoen will be QB shopping in the 2023 draft to find a replacement for Daniel Jones. It may be time to stop thinking that way. Here is the QB efficiency plot for 2022, with two independent measures, QB EPA/play and completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), plotted against each other:
The narrative about Daniel Jones among NFL fans and experts is that he is one of the league’s worst starting quarterbacks. For example, The Athletic’s annual survey of 50 NFL coaches and executives before the 2022 season placed Jones at No. 30, with comments such as these from insiders who are supposed to know football better than anyone:
“He has talent, he obviously can run, he has an OK arm,” a defensive coach said. “That kid holds the ball too long in the pocket, which leads to turnovers. I don’t think he sees the game great. I like (Brian) Daboll, so maybe that will change. I just don’t see it with that kid.”
“I think this will be the last season he is a starter and the last season we are talking about him. The same goes for Drew Lock, Mitch Trubisky, all those guys.”
Not all the comments are bad, though:
“I think his hope may be going somewhere else, taking a year off and trying to get himself restarted,” an evaluator said. “There is enough talent there, enough intangibles there, he has certainly proven his physical toughness. He was just in a bad, bad situation: offensive line, receivers, coaching was a mess. If nothing else, maybe he can give them a year or two to find their guy because he is professional, he is tough, he is respected in the locker room because of the toughness.”
But overall, Jones was ranked behind Trey Lance, Davis Mills, Justin Fields, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield, among many others. The chart above for 2022 puts his actual performance in the company of Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins, and Tom Brady. And here is how Daniel Jones has done in the past four weeks among QBs with at least 100 snaps during that time:
No one is Patrick Mahomes, and Geno Smith is playing out of his mind this season (as we’ll see first hand this coming Sunday), but Jones has been right up there with the best otherwise for a month now.
It wasn’t widely noticed, but the view of Jones changed pretty suddenly as the season progressed. The first couple of weeks Jones looked a lot like the QB many Giants fans have grown to know and not love over the past few years: Trouble with read progressions, ill-advised passes, poor pocket presence, but some good throws too. Then came the Dallas game, in which Jones was pummeled by the Cowboys’ pass rushers but hung in and had the Giants with the ball down 7 in the final minutes, earning the respect of his teammates and coaches.
Since that game things have been different. ESPN’s quarterback rating (QBR) is a metric (on a scale of 0 to 100) that is based on EPA with an adjustment for the quality of the defense the QB faces each week. Here are Jones’ QBRs and league rank for each of the first seven weeks of the 2022 season: 23.8 (28th), 36.5 (23rd), 47.8 (20th), 91.2 (second), 76.8 (fifth), 67.8 (fourth), 87.1 (second). For the past four games Jones has been the long-sought-after top 10, franchise, elite quarterback “you can with because of.”
Here are the QBR rankings for the top QBs for the 2022 season, broken down into individual components:
By this objective measure Daniel Jones is the sixth-ranked quarterback in the NFL. How can this be for a QB who has only thrown 6 TD passes in seven games and has only broken 200 yards passing twice?
There are several reasons. First, Jones’ EPA is affected by the following amazing statistic for the 2022 season:
NFL record for Game winning drives in a season is 8. Daniel Jones has 5 in 7 weeks..... DANNY CLUTCH!!! pic.twitter.com/kjnZUtjIej— The Entertainah (@TheEntertainah) October 23, 2022
EPA is higher when a third down is converted, when yards are gained in the red zone, and when yards are gained in important game situations - all of which are characteristic of game-winning drives.
And it’s not just game-winning drives. The Giants’ offense doesn’t get into scoring position that often, but when it does, it’s been pretty efficient at getting points out of it:
The Giants aren't getting into scoring position (or scoring from outside it) very often, but when they do they are doing a good job of putting points on the board. https://t.co/MtBVrYApKt— TTJ_nyg (@TTJ_nyg) October 20, 2022
Second, consider this other amazing statistic for the 2022 season:
League leaders in carries of 10+ yards this season:— Robert Mays (@robertmays) October 24, 2022
1. Nick Chubb (24)
2. Lamar Jackson (21)
3. Josh Jacobs (19)
4. Saquon Barkley (17)
5. DANIEL MF'ING JONES (15)
EPA leaders are quarterbacks who generate a lot of explosive plays. Pass plays account for most of the explosive plays in today’s NFL. But given the Giants’ current crop of wide receivers, explosive pass plays like yesterday’s TD pass to Darius Slayton are few and far between. But that’s OK, because Jones generates explosive plays with his feet, as the list above shows. People say that Jones is no Lamar Jackson, and that’s correct. No other quarterback can match the elusiveness, change of direction, and acceleration of Jackson, as Giants’ defenders experienced first-hand a week ago.
But Daniel Jones has straight-line speed that is consistently underestimated by many who watch him and sometimes by opponents as well. When he gets out on a bootleg, with a play designed by offensive coordinator Mike Kafka to have a receiving option on that side of the field, defenders are put into conflict, and their momentary hesitation whether to go for Jones or stay with the receiver is all he needs to run right past them. When the offensive linemen get push outward on both sides on drop backs, the seas part in the middle and Jones can run straight ahead for big gains if there is no open receiver. In a different offense, with top-flight receivers getting open on a consistent basis, this wouldn’t matter. But in the 2022 Giants offense, Jones converts what would be incomplete passes into first downs using his legs.
This can be seen in the QBR leaders table above. The last four columns show how much of each QB’s EPA is accounted for by passes, runs, sacks, and penalties. Jones’ 19.6 EPA contribution from passes is only tied for 15th in the NFL - still not bad for a guy NFL coaches and executives ranked 30th in the league, but not elite. But his EPA contribution of 16.1 on runs leads the NFL and almost matches that from his passes.
The final verdict
It’s hard to get our arms around it, but the 2022 New York Giants are a good team. So much of it has to do with the coaching job of Brian Daboll and his staff. But they are doing more than making lemonade out of lemons. They are taking a group with some very talented players and many ordinary players who are receptive to instruction and showing that it is possible to make an effective, even dangerous, team out of them. In Daniel Jones they are taking a player who has always labored, college and pro, on untalented teams and/or with subpar coaches and showing that he has plenty of talent. It’s just that it is a different kind of talent than today’s NFL prototype, and the football world has a hard time getting its arms around it.
Next Sunday it will be the same old story. The Giants are underdogs once again. They may win again or lose. But regardless, this team has turned a corner. Forget yards gained, forget 60-yard bombs, forget sacks. The Giants move the ball often enough and make it count when they do. They stop the opponent often enough when it matters. It all adds up to 6-1. It’s consistent with advanced metrics and may be sustainable. It may well add up to a playoff berth.